Koukl's Tactics

by Brian 25. July 2011 20:36
I recently finished Tactics by Gregory Koukl - a book I’d recommend to anyone who is interested in improving their skill in articulating the Christian worldview. The primary tactic in the book follows the Socratic Method and is taught through practical application. Though tactics are important, and the author does a fine job teaching you how to use them, it is helpful to have a holistic perspective on apologetics. The book focuses on the how, but only touches on the why, what, who, when and where. In this blog I want to briefly look at these other aspects and recommend the reader delve deeper for a well-rounded perspective.



Why Apologetics?

The word apologetics finds its origin in the Greek apologia which means to give an explanation or defense. It is the same word used in 1-Peter 3:15 where it says “always be prepared to give an answer…” To be able to give an honest and persuasive answer about your worldview is a good thing, whether you are a Christian or not. Being able to think critically about what you believe and why you believe it is essential to living an honest intellectual life. Ironically, as I am writing this morning someone posted this on Facebook:
People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. -- Tim Keller
For the Christian, I would add; a deeper and substantive integration between the life of faith and the life of experience and understanding is rewarding in and of itself. A rich and consistent worldview can be a blessing to those we interact with as well as add greater meaning to our own faith.
When it comes to sharing what we believe as Christians, reason is typically downplayed in the contemporary church. You may have heard it said; you cannot argue anyone into the Kingdom. The usual undercurrent in this comment is love overrides the need for reason. So based on this, why give apologetics any consideration at all? However, Koukl rightly points out in his book, you cannot love someone into the Kingdom either. The bottom line is God can use both love and reason to draw someone to Himself. If you have any doubt of this, all you have to do is look at the life of the apostle Paul in Acts. He reasoned with the Greeks. He reasoned with the Jews. I can tell you where Paul stood on the question of “why.”

What Strategy?

In preemptive discourse where you lead the topic, tactics ought to be guided by an apologetic strategy. This is also true of defensive situations; though probably less so if you are only dealing with a skeptic’s comment or question. As an apologist, you may find certain strategies more appealing than others. A good book covering some of the most common strategies is “Five Views on Apologetics” (Craig, Habermas, Frame, Clark and Feinberg, 2000). The book covers:
  • Classical: start with theism employing natural theology and then move to Christian particulars
  • Evidential: employ specifically Christian arguments using evidence (such as the historicity of the Resurrection) - natural theology may be helpful but not necessary
  • Cumulative Case: employ multiple arguments with the assumption formal proofs are less effective than making a case like a legal brief - each argument adds towards a preponderance
  • Presuppositional: emphasizes the noetic effects of sin and concludes believers and unbelievers are unable through argument to bridge the gap in their worldviews- attempts to show only the Christian worldview can make sense out of life’s experiences
  • Reformed Epistemology: deemphasizes the need for evidence in establishing a warranted belief in Christianity - uses negative apologetics to clear the way for the unbeliever
Having a broad understanding of the most common strategies gives you the flexibility to select the best approach in any given circumstance.[ii]

Who, When and Where to Engage?

In Tactics, most of the scenarios presented are cases where a skeptic or unbeliever makes a false verbal assertion opening the door for discourse. In my experience, this happens fairly infrequently. For example, once unbelieving coworkers know you are an informed Christian with tactical skill, they will usually avoid any confrontation. If they take any stabs at your faith, it will most likely be out of earshot. There was an example in the book where Koukl sparked up a conversation with a Wiccan, but it was triggered by a nonverbal statement (a pentagram necklace.) So unless like Koukl you come into contact with a lot of people, I think the one-on-one verbal confrontation is the exception. Social media however is changing the landscape and I think here one can find greater opportunity.
When you do find yourself confronted by the hardened skeptic, it is time to employ Koukl’s full frontal assault – right? Well, not necessarily. If I had a dollar for every wasted engagement with a skeptic, I would be better off than a $100 for every successful one. There really is wisdom in Matthew 7:6 where it says do not throw pearls to pigs. Heaven forbid you are naïve enough to jump onto your average infidel-freethinking-atheist website and start going head to head. You’ll have better luck finding Jimmy Hoffa. Skeptic’s forums and closed-door confrontations with incorrigible atheists are almost always a waste of time. However, Koukl suggests what I think is the best opportunity for such an engagement. It is where there is an audience. If there is the possibility of one or more individuals present who are open-minded, then it may be worthwhile to engage with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3). But if the audience is made up of those solidly in one camp or the other, once again, it may not be worthwhile to engage.
I want to conclude returning to the requirement of love – or charity as C.S. Lewis describes it in The Four Loves. Scripture says we will sound like a resounding gong when we speak without love. Charity is a necessary component of the apologetic enterprise. Unfortunately in our busy and often compassionless day to day struggles, charity may be lacking more than reason. As I was reading Tactics, I kept struggling with Koukl’s use of statements like “Please help me understand your perspective…” even when dealing with ridiculous self-contradictions. I thought: “How disingenuous to ask for help when you don’t need it!” But then it dawned on me. The problem wasn’t with Koukl’s approach – it was with me. With charity, the statement “please help me to understand” really means something like “I’m interested in hearing your perspective even if I’m absolutely certain it’s wrong.” But only by charity is this attitude even possible. Frankly I’ve never been able to muster this up on my own. You probably will not be able to either. We have to recognize the essentiality of charity and ask God for it. Otherwise our apologetic efforts are potentially worse than being ineffective, they can be detrimental.
[ii] If anyone knows of other good books on strategy, email me, I’d like to add them to the endnotes.

Why OEC vs YEC?

by Brian 2. May 2011 18:22

Just when you thought enough blood has been spilled in the Old Earth Creationism (OEC) versus Young Earth Creationism (YEC) debate, here comes another post to stir up trouble. I realize this is one of those insider disagreements we all wish would go away. That is probably why in twelve years of writing on apologetics I have not taken the time to really address the topic. I mean really, what is the point? You say YEC – I say OEC. Do we have to call the whole thing off? So rather than trying to prove billions is truer than thousands in a blog post, I want to share a personal perspective – one that leads us right back to the question: What is the point? What is our objective as insiders when debating the age of the universe?

As most of you probably already know, YEC holds to a literal, consecutive, 24-hour-day interpretation of the book of Genesis and places the age of the Earth somewhere between about 6,000 and 10,000 years. OEC is an eclectic position accepting a much older universe based on the current scientific view. There are all sorts of OEC variations covering a continuum from episodic supernaturalism through telic processes such as theistic evolution. [1] But ultimately under OEC, God is the Creator and the Earth is very old by comparison to YEC.

For the record, I hold a 0.9 OEC view. That is, if I were to rate my certainty in the truth of OEC, it would be 90%. The exact number is not really important. I am reasonably sure but leave the door cracked open for correction. To provide a little background: I was a nontheist until the age of 31 and convinced of an old universe. After becoming a follower of Christ, I was informed by a few amicable believers the universe was actually a few thousand years old. If I wanted to hold to the true interpretation of Scripture, I was encouraged to come to grips with this. At the time, my immature faith was challenged by this view. The epistemic dissonance forced me to take an agnostic position until I could research it further. In other words, I swept it under the rug. But no honest and rational person wants to leave it at that. So I started reading and after a few good books [ii] came to realize I didn’t have to commit intellectual suicide over this issue. I learned how OEC fits within the Christian worldview.

About this same time I took an interest in apologetics and all of the contemporary philosophers I gravitated towards also held an OEC view.[iii] This was refreshing and bolstered my confidence in a rational faith where the age of the universe could finally be put to bed, at least for me. But then one day I received an email from someone who saw an online presentation I did on the Kalam Cosmological argument. One of the assumptions I covered was a 13.7 billion year old universe. The sender politely and succinctly informed me of my apostasy. According to this brother, if I didn’t correct my view on the age of the universe, then I was at risk of eternal damnation. Needless to say, I was taken aback. Was I no longer part of the Church because of my position on the age of the universe?

After exchanging a few emails, I realized this guy was genuinely concerned about my eternal well-being. If it were not for his sincerity, I might have responded differently. After all, from my perspective, YEC is an unnecessary barrier to the Gospel hindering scientifically minded seekers like myself. Would it be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around the neck than to cause someone to stumble over something like YEC? Can we not find some middle ground, I wondered? Unfortunately there is no middle ground when it comes to the age of the universe. You cannot simply take (13.7B + 6K) / 2 and arrive at a compromise. Yet, whether you hold an OEC or YEC view, God is the efficient cause of life, the universe and everything. [iv] This is not to dismiss the exegetical and theological disagreement. But there is consensus on the fundamentals. We have a good deal of common ground.

It is disingenuous to suggest Christian theists are lost in their little OEC/YEC creation debate while contemporary science takes the intellectual high ground. Let’s not forget a few decades ago, science held the now utterly bankrupt position of a static universe while Christian theism was proclaiming a universe that began to exist. Dr. Robert Jastrow, an American astronomer, physicist and cosmologist describes the transition in the mid twentieth century from the predominant scientific view to where we are today:

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Christian theists had been far closer to the truth on big-bang cosmology than science had for centuries. This historical fact ought to remind us of how close both groups are to the truth.  But is this enough to resolve the infighting between YECers and OECers? I’m guessing not.

I have already mentioned the unnecessary stumbling block YEC presents. However YEC has its grounds for concern. They claim OEC is conceding biblical integrity to science through the harmonization of an old universe with the Genesis account. Allegedly, what follows is an undermining of theological concepts such as original sin and our need for salvation. Even though I agree OEC harmonization is more challenging than a straight literal reading, I personally do not find it to be a stretch. On the other hand: As one who grew up in an unbelieving family; who surrounded himself with unbelieving friends; who works in the unbelieving world of computer science and who has engaged nontheists over the years; openness to the Christian worldview is more negatively impacted by dogmatic YEC than it is by the harmonization of Genesis with OEC. So once again, what is our goal in this debate? Is it about winning the argument, where my theology is better than yours? Or is it about allowing the truth of the Gospel to work without unwarranted impediment. I agree we cannot sacrifice the truth just because it may be hard to receive. But we ought not be incorrigible about our interpretations either -- especially if they are a stumbling block.

Let’s not forget, theology is constantly evolving. The truth of the Word may be immutable, but our interpretations and understanding are in flux. I’m sure if facebook had an earlier start, the Wittenberg group of 1517 would have been full of posts about the audacity of certain radicals to challenge the theological interpretations of the day. Of course those same radicals opposed the views of heliocentrism [v] and today we have no problem accepting a correction without invoking manipulation through scientism. Yet somehow in the 21st century our reading of Scripture is as good as it is going to get. We have arrived, bearing the true interpretation. We have executed the ultimate hermeneutic resulting in the perfect exegesis. That doesn't seem honest to me.

As a Christian minimalist, I believe we have to keep the door open on matters outside the bounds of mere Christianity, especially when it applies to divisive issues for unbelievers. In contrary interpretations, only one side, or neither side, can be true. That’s why I say I hold a 0.9-OEC view. This not only leaves room for correction, but helps me to be more accepting of those who take the other side. Given Christians are roughly split over YEC and OEC [vi], we simply have to get past this in a way where we are not compromising essentials while at the same time removing obstacles to the Gospel. The fact is; many young college-educated unbelievers are already certain about the age of the Earth and the universe. If because of individual or institutional dogma on nonessentials, or pointless infighting, an honest seeker is turned away from the truth, then this debate has served its purpose well. That is, the enemy’s purpose.

[i] Wikipedia aside, the OEC continuum is not so much literal interpretation through theistic evolution as much as it is from episodic supernaturalism through telic processes including evolution - both over billions of years. YEC proponents typically claim the OEC position sacrifices a straightforward literal interpretation. And, proponents of theistic evolution, such as John Polkinghorne, would probably argue OEC and the Genesis account are in agreement on the grounds the universe began to exist and God is ultimately the Creator.

[ii] Again, I don’t want this post to be about trying to prove OEC over YEC, so what I read and how the arguments helped me conclude the truth of OEC are not relevant here. I’m sure YEC supporters have their list of convincing resources as well.

[iii]  William Lane Craig, Norman Geisler, J P Moreland, to name a few

[iv] Yet another use of a phrase from of the atheist writer Douglas Adams

[v] Luther over the dinner table said “…The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth."

[vi] Based on several polls summarized here -> http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2369785/posts  

ID-101 (Part One)

by Brian 11. April 2011 17:22

What is Intelligent Design? If you ask the average proponent of Darwinian evolution, the answer is Creationism. He or she will say ID is nothing more than a god-of-the-gaps scheme concocted by a bunch of fundamentalist Christians. Ironically, if you ask the average Christian the same question, you’ll get a complimentary version of the same answer! When it comes to a real understanding of ID, neither side has much incentive to do the heavy lifting. It’s easier for opponents to excommunicate Intelligent Design from Science and those who believe in a Creator do not require it as a confirmation – ID is a given. Yet those at the forefront of Intelligent Design are adding to our understanding of the world; certainly more so than critics give them credit and probably less than what most theists think. The high road in this debate is neither ad hominem attack nor tacit support. 

What is Intelligent Design?

Straight from the Discovery Institute, the leading ID think-tank, Intelligent Design is defined as follows:

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection[i]

Immediately the skeptic’s dander is up. They will say: ID invokes an intelligent cause, which we all know is God. Since science only deals with natural causes, ID is not science. Of course, this line of reasoning misconstrues the methodology ID scientists might employ with the potential outcome of their research. But critics do not stop here. It is not uncommon for them to introduce two more red herrings: First; invoking an intelligent cause for life and the universe hinders scientific inquiry and discovery. Second, an intelligent cause is beyond scientific investigation and therefore adds nothing to our understanding of the world. I will show why these accusations are false using the following analogy.

Imagine a forensic scientist who is asked to examine a deceased man in order to find the cause of death. The cause may be natural, or it may be the result of foul play – an intelligent cause. Let’s further imagine the man died from a rare toxin that entered his bloodstream and worked its way up to his heart causing cardiac arrest. Finally, let’s assume the conclusion from forensics, in this case, is murder. If correct, then clearly the efficient and final cause leading to the man’s death was human intelligence and not natural processes. Does this mean the methods employed by the forensic scientist to determine the cause were unscientific? - Of course not. Does this mean further studies in medicine, heart disease or the circulatory system should grind to a halt because of his findings? – Obviously not. What about our understanding of the world? We might not gain scientific knowledge in this case, but we certainly learned something very important – the cause of the man's death.

The attempts by critics to cut ID off at the knees are hardly convincing. But perhaps the work ID proponents are doing really isn’t science. So let’s take a closer look and delve into ID theory to see if we can find something substantive. Foundational to ID is William Dembski’s concept of Specified Complexity which essentially denotes the two hallmarks of design: complexity and a specified pattern. Before I go into this in more detail, it is worth noting there is a vast amount of criticism, disinformation, and polemics on the web from those who loathe anything ID. But what you will not find in the criticism is any recognition of the fact design-detection is something all of us do regularly. If you find an arrowhead in the woods you immediately recognize it as something manmade and not the product of natural forces and erosion. Since on the average critic’s universe, our minds are nothing more than biochemical computers; what sort of processing do you suppose goes on when we see an effect and infer a design cause? Perhaps the process could be discovered, understood and formulated. That is precisely what Dembski and others are trying to do.

The Explanatory Filter


Dembski’s explanatory filter is configured to prevent false-positives by giving necessity and chance the benefit of the doubt. This does mean the filter allows false-negatives through, where design is not detected. A good bit of modern-art might not make it past chance for example. That is, the filter might not distinguish an intentional set of splashes of paint on a canvas from several buckets of paint falling off a ladder onto a canvas. Even given this limitation, it's better than a false positive. The following, which I call the mountain archer analogy, explains how the filter works. Imagine an archer shooting an arrow off the top of a mountain down into a valley ten square miles in size. Further, imagine the archer is so high up the mountain, the arrow could reach any spot in the valley below…

·         Hitting the valley is a high probability (HP) and follows necessarily from initial conditions and the law of gravity. The archer could fire over his shoulder, blindfolded, and still hit the valley.


·         Hitting one of a small number of trees in the valley the archer was not aiming for is an intermediate probability (IP) – not exactly what one might expect, but certainly within the reach of chance.

·         Hitting a stream running through the valley the archer was aiming for is a specified intermediate probability (Spec + IP) – the filter would chalk this up to chance and register a false negative even though this was a good shot and involved an intelligent cause. But the archer could have been blindfolded and got lucky.

·         Hitting a particular pebble the archer was not aiming for would be a small probability (SP) – but unspecified. There are lots of pebbles in the valley and even though hitting a particular one is a small probability event, it is not unlikely to hit a pebble.

·         Hitting a particular pebble that you had earlier painted a bulls-eye on is a specified small probability (Spec + SP) and would make it through the filter to design. The archer is either an incredible shot or a good magician – either way, we have a design-cause.[ii] No one in their right mind would attribute such an event to chance.

Probabilistic Resources

Dembski introduces the concept of probabilistic resources which include replicational and specificational resources. Probabilistic resources comprise the relevant ways an event can occur.[iii] Replicational resources are basically the number of samples taken. In the above analogy, it could be the number of shots fired. Specificational resources refer to the number of opportunities or ways to specify an event. Using the same analogy, it could be the number of pebbles with bulls-eyes (or some other mark indicating a target.) Obviously, the greater number of pebbles with targets and the greater number of shots fired, the greater the probability of hitting a target. 

Universal Probability Bound

If the marked pebble has a surface area of one square inch, then the odds of hitting it at random are roughly 1 in 2.5e11 or one in 250 billion[iv] - about 3000 times less likely than winning the Power Ball lottery with a single ticket. Even if it may seem impractical, critics would argue that this is still within the reach of chance. This is where Dembski introduces his universal probability bound (UPB) - a degree of improbability below which a specified event of that probability cannot reasonably be attributed to chance regardless of whatever probabilistic resources from the known universe are factored in.[v]  The UPB is 1e150 (one with a hundred and fifty zeros after it.) These odds, by taking the inverse, are so small; it would be about as likely to win the Power Ball twenty times in a row with one ticket each! Something even the contrarian realizes would be the result of intelligence and not luck (i.e. someone is cheating.)

But what does Dembski mean by: regardless of whatever probabilistic resources from the known universe are factored in? Here he is basing his probabilistic resources limit on the product of the number of elementary particles in the known universe (1e80) repeating every instant (1e45 per second [based on Plank time]) since the beginning of time in seconds (1e25) = 1e150. This seems like overkill, but apparently, you need this to overcome skepticism.[vi] But do we really need this much overhead? Take for example the estimated number of grains of sand on all of the beaches on earth. Say I traveled to a random beach and dug down and marked a single grain of sand. Now if you go to a random beach anywhere on earth, to a random spot, dig to a random depth (up to 5 meters), and grab a random grain, the odds of it being the same grain as the one I marked are estimated at one in 7.5e18. A rational person would never believe this would happen by chance. Even so, those odds are 131 orders of magnitude better than one in 1e150. The rational position is to realize there comes a point where theoretical possibility must give way to a practical possibility. The odds one in 1e150 are not zero, so a specified, small-probability event at this scale is not theoretically impossible, but it is rational to conclude its practical impossibility.

So far Dembski’s filter appears to be sound. But there is another criticism from detractors: affinities and constraints in the probability landscape can create the appearance of design completely by chance. Say for example the archer shot multiple arrows at random each with a long string of equal length. The resulting semicircle pattern on the valley below might be considered a design-cause since it is unlikely such a pattern would emerge at random. But this criticism obviously fails to recognize how in this case the probability landscape is greatly reduced by the constraint (the string) so that each event necessarily falls within a semicircle swath in the valley below. But perhaps there are laws governing the universe where affinities and constraints shape chaos into order. In a future post, I will try to tackle this and the other foundational principle of ID – irreducible complexity. It is when specified complexity meets the real world things get tricky.

[i] http://www.discovery.org/csc/topQuestions.php#questionsAboutIntelligentDesign
[ii]This analogy does not take into account Dembski’s universal probability bound of 1e-150 which is over 138 orders of magnitude more stringent than the odds in this analogy

[iii]The Design Inference, William Dembski, pg.181

[iv] This assumes an equal probability of hitting any location across the valley below which in real life would not be the case – for example, if you could hit the corners you could likely land outside the valley as well.

[v] ISCID Encyclopedia of Science and Philosophy (1999)

[vi]This seems straightforward in terms of replicational resources but I do question the validity of also including specificational resources here. Samples repeated as quickly as physically possible in every conceivable location in the universe since the big bang does seem to set an upper limit for replicational resources, but I do not see the relation to how specifications can be varied. Imagine every elementary particle in the universe has a piggyback random number generator cranking out 200-digit numbers one every Plank-time since the big bang. One would reasonably expect that the significand of the square root of two had not been generated out 200 places. But what about the irrational square roots of any positive integer and their significands to 200 places? I’m sure SETI would consider a binary transmission of 200 digits of the square root of two to have an intelligent cause – but what about the square root of 3 or 7, etc?

About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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